Albany actually did something right, government officials agreed at a Friday afternoon press conference announcing that the city would no longer require employed homeless residents to pay rent in shelters.
Instead — after what city politicians described as protracted negotiations — the city will implement a pilot program that requires homeless households with steady income to redirect a percentage of their earnings into a savings account that can be accessed after leaving the shelter system.
For most homeless, who are below the poverty line, this would be no more than 20 percent of earned income, with an estimated total of $2 million a year across the city siphoned into savings accounts.
This comes on the heels of an announcement this spring that the Mayor Bloomberg would implement a long-unenforced 1997 state law requiring residents with jobs to pay rent for city shelters. At the time, many critics argued that the enforcement of this law would unnecessarily burden the neediest citizens. Now, residents will still have to give up the same amount of money — but only temporarily.
“It’s still your money … that’s the essence,” Mayor Bloomberg told reporters at the lightly attended conference at City Hall.
He said this initiative would be “forcing people to learn to save,” since in the current system, “When they leave the shelter system, unfortunately they have nothing to fall back on.” This program, he said, is the first of its kind. Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs also told the Observer that she predicts it could become permanent, and will carry through until at least 2016. “That’s a pretty meaty pilot,” she said.
Politicians seemed most excited that the negotiations were successful, and that different levels of government actually collaborated. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a major critic of the initial rent plan, started his speech saying, “Something worked well in Albany. I know that’s sometimes a hard construct to believe.” State Senator Daniel Squadron who helped draft the initiative added, “It’s a very rare moment when you have everyone getting behind policy.” Mayor Bloomberg likened the collaboration to the recent lift on the charter school cap, which he said would give the city a much better shot at securing federal Race to the Top dollars.
Even Steve Banks, the chief attorney from the Legal Aid Society, which has been vocally opposed to the rent plan, said, “I think this was an experience in which we can all build on in other contexts. … A common sense solution was arrived at.”
After the conference, one reporter questioned what took so long to reach this agreement. Mr. Banks hesitated to offer any details on the sticking points, but said, “Like so many times in life, you need the moon, the sun, and the stars aligned.”
Assemblymember Keith Wright, who represents parts of Harlem, also told the Observer as he was leaving City Hall that it was in fact quite an uphill climb to reach the final negotiation, with hours upon hours of conference calls. “Sometimes various municipalities need time to see the light,” he said.